North Korea
Students gather as part of rehearsals for a mass performance, on Kim Il Sung square in Pyongyang on Sept. 6, 2018. Getty Images/ Ed Jones

North Korea celebrates its 70th founding anniversary Sunday – which will be an opportunity for the country’s leader Kim Jong Un to deliver on his promise of putting “economy first.”

One of the focuses of Kim’s “economy first” policy – given the scale of celebrations planned for the upcoming anniversary – seems to be boosting the tourism industry in North Korea, which generates an estimated $44 million a year, according to Korea Maritime Institute, a South Korean think-tank.

What with the United Nations sanctions curbing 90 percent of exports of the nation, costing North Korea around $3 billion annually, promoting its tourism industry remains one of the very few avenues to ensure an influx of cash in its economy. And to do this, Pyongyang is leaving no stones unturned.

Simon Cockerell, general manager for the Koryo Tours agency told Reuters ticket prices for “Mass Games,” – an enormous nationalist pageant performed by up to 100,000 people in one of the world’s largest stadiums after a gap of five years – were increased this year. While VIP tickets were sold for $350 in the past, they cost $930 this year. The cheapest ones are priced $116.

“There’s very high interest,” Cockerell said. “All the flights are full, all the hotels are full. It’s quite telling that Chinese tour companies were banned by the North Korean side from taking in any tourists until the middle of September, simply for capacity reasons.”

Thousands of school children could be seen rehearsing for the big day in their uniforms in Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung square, and on street corners as they practiced marching and played music.

Ahead of the anniversary, the road between Pyongyang International Airport and the city center was being repaired and all the major roads were lined with posters commemorating the anniversary.

The North Koreans state media is promoting the event as “a celebration of the victor and continuously expand the results of the big economic development march.”

Although Chinese tourists made up about 80 percent of foreign visitors to North Korea, Beijing announced Tuesday, after weeks of speculations, that Chinese President Xi Jinping will not be leading this year’s delegation to Pyongyang. It will, instead, be headed by Chinese parliament chief Li Zhanshu.

North Korea blamed the United States for influencing other countries not to send their highest delegates for their founding anniversary.

“The U.S. is attempting to invent a pretext for increased sanctions against [North Korea] by mobilizing all their servile mouthpieces and intelligence institutions to fabricate all kinds of falsehoods on our nuclear issue,” a statement released last month from the spokesperson of North Korea’s Foreign Ministry read.

“Worse still, the U.S. is resorting to such highly despicable actions as hindering international organizations’ cooperation with our country in the field of sports and forcing other countries not to send high-level delegations to the celebrations of the 70th founding anniversary of the DPRK,” the statement added.

The U.S. and the rest of the world will also be watching Sunday’s ceremony for any signs of new ballistic missiles or other advanced weaponry. However, while a military parade was scheduled for the anniversary event, no plans for a weapons display have been disclosed.

“Display of military prowess has always been crucial in North Korean statecraft,” Hong Min, senior researcher of Korea Institute for National Unification, said. “But North Korea does know that if they do display ICBMs, the international society will doubt their willingness for denuclearization. It’s highly unlikely that North Korea would be risking it.”

Hong added the anniversary will not only be a celebration of the achievements of North Korea over the last 70 years, but will also be a look at the direction the nation was preparing to take over the next 10 years.

“It is a day Kim Jong Un should reminisce the past 70 years of the republic, and it is an event where he has the pressure to offer a long-term statecraft vision that looks into more than 10 years that follow,” Hong said.